The medieval centre of the Flanders wool industry, Ypres lies in the centre of a shallow saucer-shaped piece of ground with higher ground all around it - a series of ridges to the north include Passchendaele Ridge, to the east include Menin Road Ridge and south, include Messines Ridge. The town itself was an old Vauban fortress (a type of fortress invented by Marshal Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban, 1633 - 1707) whose ramparts are still visible, although most of the buildings were levelled by German shelling, including the huge medieval cloth hall.
The first battle of Ypres took place as a 'meeting engagement' during the 'Race to the Sea' where the Allied and German armies tried to find an open flank to exploit, with the British and German forces meeting head on the axis of the Menin Road. It quickly became obvious that the Germans were in overwhelming numbers but the British (and French) troops just managed to contain the onslaught. The battle started on 31 October 1914 when the Germans took Gheluvelt and were checked by an Allied counterattack, which occurred again after they took Nonne Bosschen, after which they attempted to breakthrough but could not make any headway against the BEF's rifle fire, the Germans committing freshly raised divisions, many of which had student volunteers, who suffered terrible casualties (the German call this the 'Kindermord zu Ypern' - the massacre of the innocents at Ypres). The fighting died away at the end of November, leaving a salient bulging into the German lines, both sides having lost around 100,000 men.
The second battle took place when the Germans attacked the northern flank of the Salient on 22 April 1915 between Poelcappelle and Bixschoote, using gas for the first time. The Germans managed to achieve a breakthrough by defeating two French divisions but could not exploit the success and were checked by a Canadian counterattack. The fighting then turned into an attack-counterattack tit-for-tat exercise that ended in May 1915 with a limited British withdrawal to a line closer to Ypres and the loss of Hill 60. The area continued to be active for the next two years and was chosen for the principle British attack during the third battle of Ypres.
By the end of 1916, the French had regained most of the territory lost to the Germans around the town of Verdun and its commander, General Robert Nivelle, planned to follow this up with a grand attack north of the River Aisne in concert with the British, who would attack in Artois, north of Arras. The Canadians attacked Vimy Ridge on 9 April and took it, while the British XVII Corps, part of Allenby's Third Army, attacked to the east, near the River Scarpe and while it became bogged down due to rain and snow, took around 5,000 prisoners and advanced the line forward. The main French attack on the Chemin des Dames with the Fifth and Sixth Armies was a disaster, even with the Fourth and Tenth Armies coming into action, with small gains taken for high casualties. The Germans suffered some 160,000 casualties while the French suffered almost 190,000. This proved to be the straw that broke the camels back and at Châlons-sur-Marne on 29 April, a French unit refused to accept orders and the rot quickly spread, although it was mainly limited to a refusal to attack – defensive fighting was kept up. Nivelle was sacked and replaced by General Pétain. Pétain's job was not only to bring the mutiny under control but to do so in a way that would restore the confidence and moral of the army. This he would manage to do, but it would take time, and so for the moment, the burden of keeping the pressure on the Germans was down to the British.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig thought that Flanders presented a much more attractive target than the Somme as it was close to the main British sources of supply, familiar to his staff and offered the chance of a breakthrough with targets such as the German railhead at Roulers and the Channel ports from which German submarines were conducting operations (he was under pressure from the Admiralty to clear the Flanders coast). The attack was preceded by the assault of Plumer's Second Army on Messines on 7 June 1917 with the main attack coming on 31 July from Gough's Fifth Army - a little too late as it happens for the momentum had been lost in the interval. It consisted of three phases - the first being the battles for Pilckem Ridge (where my Great Grandfather was killed as it happens), Gheluvelt Plateau and Langemarck where the Fifth Army pushed its way into a salient made all the more boggy by unseasonal weather and the shelling had badly damaged the land drainage system. Secondly, Second Army took over with the battles for Menin Road Ridge, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde, making good progress in the central sector. Finally, in the battles for Poelcappelle and Passchendaele (First and Second), the attackers (who were by this time exhausted) fought their way onto Passchendaele Ridge in appalling conditions, with the Canadians taking the village on 6 November 1917. The British lost well over 200,000 men (perhaps as many as 260,000), with the Germans loosing a similar figure and the battle badly affected the morale of both sides, with the word 'Passchendaele' becoming a byword for suffering.
The Battle of the Lys, is sometimes called the fourth battle of Ypres and occurred during the German spring offensive in which the Allies lost ground around the town, including Mount Kemmel to the south, but retained control of Ypres itself. With the exception of Verdun, there are few landscapes that are viewed as more representational of the First World War than that of the Ypres salient. The Menin Gate memorial which cuts through the Vauban ramparts contains the name of 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the salient and have no known grave, while the cemetery of Tyne Cot on Passchendaele Ridge holds the names of another 35,000.
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